Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Dodge Disaster

The word that Dodge is withdrawing from NASCAR after twelve seasons in Winston Cup brings to an end a period of unrealized potential and constitutes a blow to the competitive depth of the series as it already struggles with weakening competitive depth and spending issues that no doubt played a role in Dodge's withdrawal.

Dodge and its parent company Chrysler had been a NASCAR participant in the 1950s onward as a direct factory backer of race teams, and with Richard Petty, the Harry Hyde-Bobby Isaac tandem, and teams such as Ray Fox, Everett "Cotton" Owens, and Ray Nichels Engineering, Chrysler enjoyed great NASCAR success and a bitter rivalry with Ford Motor Company. When the factories withdrew in the 1970-71 period, Dodges fielded by Petty and Hyde kept winning but parts shortages finally ended the success of the brand in 1978.

Then in the early 1990s a Lebaron was entered in ARCA racing and began to win. It led in 1996 to Dodge involvement with the new NASCAR Truck Series, with Petty as its first team. The Dodge program grew to where by 2000 Petty and other teams were fielding Dodge Trucks and working together under Lou Patane under the One Team catchphrase and philosophy. The success led Dodge to sign Petty, Bill Davis, and Ray Evernham to field Winston Cup Dodge Intrepids.

But things began to go wrong almost right away. Indycar owner Chip Ganassi muscled in by purchasing SABCO Racing and getting Dodge backing, for which he earned a rebuke from Bill Davis in August 2000. Ganassi began winning almost immediately and the program appeared to be struggling as Patane's authority was usurped by Daimler, which had bought into Chrysler; officials in Stuttgart now began running the program and the One Team philosophy disappeared. Davis got into trouble with Dodge despite winning races and was dropped from the program in 2003. Evernham began winning with Bill Elliott and in 2004 Kasey Kahne began becoming a star when he joined the Evernham team. Behind the scenes there, however, chaos was reigning with teammate Jeremy Mayfield, who won twice but chafed at the internal workings of the team and publicly called out Evernham and his relationship with development driver (and his future wife) Eric Crocker. Petty Enterprises had it by far the worst, as the engine program never got untracked in 2001, leading to a deal with Mike Ege's engine shop, then eventually with Evernham's shop. Kyle Petty ran the team and hired Robin Pemberton for 2002, but Pemberton quit in a dispute with Kyle and the team steadily weakened, despite a burst of muscle from driver Bobby Labonte in 2006-8 following the return of team manager Robbie Loomis, who'd been Richard Petty's crew chief from 1991-1999.

Eventually Evernham's team itself began falling apart in 2007 with a publicized dispute between Evernham and his engineering staff. With the sport's economics becoming more and more difficult, Evernham merged his team with businessman George Gillett, a deal that fell apart by the end of 2008, to where the team merged with Petty Enterprises after Richard Petty took back day-to-day control of his team. The new Richard Petty Motorsports won twice in 2009 before leaving Dodge. Ganassi, meanwhile, had also left Dodge after its own slow-motion collapse and eventual merger with Teresa Earnhardt's Chevrolet team.

This left Roger Penske as the only team running Dodges. Penske had signed with Dodge in 2003, and his history of siphoning off factory help from other teams to buff up his own carried over here. Then Penske announced a switch to Fords for 2013.

The program's legacy is that of a casualty of poor management and the sport's increasing expenses, to where $20 million team budgets are now considered low ball. The technology arms race in the sport escalated - no small part thanks to Dodge - to the point where success has become almost too difficult to be worth it. It's a bitter legacy to racing and to the Dodge brand.